As life in 2020AD progresses, the more it increasingly looks akin to something from the pages of a dystopian film or novel penned from less socially turbulent post-war times during the last century. After limping from a polarising UK Christmas election and Brexit Day in January, almost immediately the World crashes into the COVID-19 Corona Virus Pandemic, just now beginning to take a hold in Europe, with fears that – far from Boris Johnson’s pre-election claim that 2020 was “poised to became a great one in the history of our nation” - the reality is that the UK could suffer something akin to what Italy has experienced in recent weeks.
The sight of Serie A games and Champions League matches played behind closed doors - along with the short notice cancellation of Arsenal’s away trip to Manchester City after the Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis announced his COVID-19 diagnosis this week, less than a fortnight after visiting the Arsenal stadium - both throw the matter into stark focus. As does the required self-isolation of “less than five” Arsenal players who came into contact with Mr Marinakis. For the record though, it’s not the first time such a public health crisis has affected London or Arsenal within living memory.
In Early December 1952, the “Great Smog of London” was believed to have hastened the deaths of around 12,000 Londoners. Arsenal’s postponed fixture that week turned out to be their final game of the season against Burnley, on the Friday evening before the Coronation Cup Final, in a 3-2 victory which gave Arsenal the title on goal average. Despite a winter which saw both the Great Smog and Britain’s worst natural disaster of the twentieth century in the shape of the Great East Coast floods at the end of January 1953, the football season still saw itself through to an exciting climax in early May, both in the League at Highbury and the two Stanleys – Matthews and Mortensen – winning a thrilling FA Cup Final at Wembley the following day.
People have wondered whether, the outbreak of the Corona virus will hasten a premature inconclusive end to the 2019/20 season. My opinion is that it will probably be played out one way or another, but in such an unforeseen outlandish fashion it’ll probably be the stuff of folk myth for years to come. The thought of the Premiership season prematurely ending, despite such a one-sided title race with Liverpool a matter of weeks away from their first title in three decades might amuse some. The more likely, equally as funny scenario (if one can draw humour in such turbulent times), would be Liverpool finally ending their title drought lifting the trophy in an empty Anfield stadium.
It’s entirely foreseeable that even after such a woeful and inadequate response from Boris Johnson’s government to this crisis in comparison to other European countries, mass gatherings such as football matches will eventually be outlawed in the current climate. Having said that, the headache of where to eventually restart from next season in terms of promotion, relegation and European qualification, coupled with the financial necessities and allocation of football prize money, means that the football industry may furiously resist the temptation to declare the 2019/20 Season as null and void. The tight schedule of the football calendar, which will need to accommodate a Winter World Cup in two years’ time, means that suspending the season with a view to resuming it at a later date will also be out of the question.
it’s the more likely scenario that the Premiership and EFL will continue with games behind closed doors, but permit all such games to be streamed or televised live with clubs recouping their losses through pay per view streaming in conjunction with Sky and BT Sport’s existing TV contracts. It’s also a scenario which makes sense on several levels – not least politically as a good “bread and circus act” to quell a restless population and boost jaded public morale, rather like what ‘Worker’s Playtime’ or Arthur Askey had been at the height of the Blitz.
A Self-isolating population in lockdown will also no doubt lead to large captive TV audiences. The absence of travelling fans in a stadium will also temporarily remove barriers and sensitivities on kick off times, meaning that even for instance a 7AM or 9AM UK start – infuriating for UK football purists, but an appealing early evening kick off time over in the Far East – could become a reality in the short term. Flexibility with the formats of Cup competitions may also be required simply to get the 2019/20 done and dusted with, such as Champions League and Europa League ties reduced to one legged affairs played at neutral empty stadiums in areas with low COVID-19 infection rates.
The same may also be the case for Euro 2020. The planned Pan-European competition UEFA originally had in store for this season may have to give way to a more streamlined affair held in just one single low COVID-19 infection rate territory with the dumping of the drawn out group phase in favour of a straight knockout competition in some fashion.
Undoubtedly, there are far greater social matters of concern at present than how the football season pans out. But for the sake of seeing the 2019/20 season over the line – and maybe even allowing for the trivialities of live to safe guard the mental well being of the World’s population during such troubled times – the weeks and months ahead could turn out to be a case of “Keep Calm and Carry on Streaming”.
Robert Exley can be followed on Twitter and is also the Creator of the Video Series Double Barrel: The Story of Arsenal’s 1970/71 Season’
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